The Woodjin: The Squirrel Who Ate the Moon by Lbilover

'The Squirrel Who Ate the Moon' is not an actual Lenape legend. There is a Native American story about a squirrel eating a solar eclipse, but it's not Lenape. So the tale Elijah tells is a bit of a pastiche of the Lenape creation myth and my own imagination, although all the names are in fact Lenape names. The photos included are of the December 21, 2010 lunar eclipse.

The small pinewood campfire didn't provide much warmth, but it didn't have to, for that wasn't its main purpose. He and Elijah were well bundled up against the cold, as any sensible Pineys out on such a night would be. But the flickering red-gold flames served another purpose, acting as a bulwark between Sean and things that went bump in the night - real things. He knew what lived in the forest, for he'd seen it with his own two eyes.

Still, it was foolish to feel uneasy, Sean thought. The full moon overhead was bright enough to dispel the darkness and shed a silvery radiance that transformed what could have been a menacing scene into one of pure fairy tale enchantment. 

And of course there was the most enchanting sight of all, the prince of these fairy tale woods, who was resting warmly against Sean's side. His gaze strayed from the silvered bark of the pine trees and the sparkle like moon dust scattered over the sand of the clearing where they were camped, and came to rest on Elijah's face.

Elijah was gazing up at the sky, to the moon that would soon be obscured by the earth's shadow in a rare lunar eclipse. His flawless profile delicately etched and limned in silver and his skin turned cream and gold from the light of the fire gave him the appearance an old-fashioned cameo; while his absurdly long eyelashes actually cast moonshadows on his cheeks. Yet for all his seeming delicacy he possessed a coiled tensile strength ready to explode into action at any moment, and a limitless courage to go with it. 

Yes, it was foolish to be afraid. The Woodjin could, and always would, protect his own.

Across the fire Maggie, the leaping flames reflected in her wide amber eyes, sprawled on her side in the sand, her bushy rust and black tail half covering Rocky, who slept curled up against her with his head tucked beneath his front paws. It was way past his bedtime, and normally he would have stayed home in his nesting box above their bed, but according to Elijah he'd wanted to come with them - though Elijah wouldn't tell Sean why. "You'll find out," was all he'd replied in answer to Sean's question.

"Rocky doesn't look like waking up any time soon," Sean now remarked. "He's out for the count."

Elijah kept his eyes fixed on the moon. "He'll wake up when it's time. In fact, all the squirrels in the pines will wake up. They won't want to miss this."

Sean didn't argue. If Elijah said Rocky and the other squirrels would wake up, wake up they would. Instead, he glanced at the luminous dial of his wrist watch, though the moon was so bright that he could read it easily without artificial illumination. "It's 1:25. Things should start getting underway soon."

And sure enough, a few minutes later Sean observed with a thrill a tiny sliver of moon disappearing from sight, as if it were indeed made of cheese and some industrious mouse was nibbling at it. 

squirrel 1
squirrel 1

On cue, Rocky untucked his head and sat up, his beady eyes surprisingly bright and alert for one who normally was asleep at this late hour (and was never an early riser). Chattering softly to himself, he scurried around the fire to Sean, who automatically held out his right arm so the squirrel could climb to his usual perch on his shoulder. There Rocky assumed his coffee-pot pose with his tail draped across his back and then curled over like a handle, and took a firm hold of Sean's hair above his ear - though for a change he didn't yank on it. 

Maggie rose, too, stretched her elegant black-and-rust legs one at a time with a flex of sharp-clawed paws, and went to Elijah, climbing delicately onto his lap. Fred, secure in Sean's coat pocket and warmly wrapped in a plaid fleece scarf against the cold that did not agree with a turtle's cold-blooded constitution, stuck his head out and blinked his round red eyes at the moon.

Sean heard faint rustlings in the trees around them - caused not by the wind this time, but by the wild squirrels who were emerging from their leafy drays in the boles of the trees to witness the eclipse. Though he could not see them, Sean sensed their presence. 

He'd been a Piney long enough that he was attuned to the unique rhythms of the pines, but this was something entirely new and left him awed. He'd always loved the sense of community special moments like this engendered, the knowledge that all around the world others were witnessing the same wondrous event you were. But he'd never imagined that community including squirrels! 

He was burning with curiosity to know just why watching the eclipse was so important to them, but there was no point to asking. Elijah would tell him in his own good time. A Piney couldn't be rushed. 

Sean picked up the binoculars resting in his lap and raised them to his eyes. A soft gasp escaped him as the full impact of the unfolding drama became apparent in the details the high-powered lenses revealed. He half-wished they'd brought the telescope with them, but lugging it this deep into the woods would have been difficult, and where Elijah had led them no four-wheel drive could go.

"Take a look," he said to Elijah, offering him the binoculars. 

Elijah set them to his eyes and fiddled with the focus knob. "Gollykeeper," he exclaimed. His hand shot out and gripped Sean's forearm. "Oh Sean, look at that. Just look at it."

squirrel 2
squirrel 2

The eclipse's creeping shadow was spreading, but as if to compensate, the visible portion of the moon glowed even brighter as if some unseen hand was burnishing the silver disc to a mirror hue. Surrounded by a thick expanse of glittering stars, it was a breathtaking sight.

Sean covered Elijah's hand with his own and squeezed it. No words were necessary - even if he could have found them.

They traded the binoculars back and forth as the eclipse continued, taking occasional breaks to add more wood to the fire or sip hot chocolate from the large thermos they'd brought with them. The minutes slipped past unnoticed, so riveting was the heavenly show, especially when an occasional shooting star, straggler from a meteor shower a few days' earlier, streaked across the sky. It was totally worth the crick in the neck he was developing, Sean decided.

Gradually as the sun's shadow encroached, until more than half the moon was covered in darkness, the silver glow faded to be replaced by a duller, reddish color that looked to Sean's eyes like nothing so much as dried blood - a color that as a doctor, and especially as the Woodjin's doctor, he was all too familiar with. Maybe rust was a better, if more prosaic, comparison.

squirrel 3
squirrel 3

Rocky, who had remained as quiet and unmoving as if he were indeed imitating a coffee pot, suddenly let out a soft burst of squirrel-chatter. Sean would never understand exactly what Rocky was saying, but he was familiar enough with the inflections of the squirrel's voice to tell when he was asking a question. 

"What does he want to know?" Sean asked curiously.

"He wants to know, all the squirrels want to know, who is eating the moon."

A logical question, Sean supposed. Hadn't his first thought been that the eclipse looked like a mouse was nibbling at some tasty lunar cheese? 

He chuckled. "Now there's a challenge even for you, Woodjin. How are you going to get across to a scurry of squirrels the fact that the sun is casting its shadow over the moon and it's not being eaten at all?" 

Elijah laughed. "I'm not. And I suppose I should have added that Rocky's question is rhetorical. He knows, they all know, the answer." 

"They do?" It took a lot more to surprise Sean than it once had, but this startled him. Tribal memory in squirrels? That's what it sounded like.

"Of course." Maggie meowed in that imperative manner she had, and Elijah hugged her. "Impatient one, I will tell the story in a minute. Go to Sean now." 

"I take it squirrels play a central role in the story." It wasn't a difficult guess to hazard. 

"They do. I'll have to tell the story first in the language they understand," Elijah said apologetically, "but I'll translate each line for you, okay?"

"Okay." Maggie came to him and climbed in his lap. She settled down purring as Elijah stood and moved a short distance away. He sat cross-legged with his back ramrod straight, his forearms resting on his thighs and his hands palm up. His eyes were dark and liquid in the firelight and Sean was utterly mesmerized by the sight. The telling of this story was, he realized, as much a performance as anything; and he marveled that yet another facet to the Woodjin's character was being revealed to him.

It had been growing gradually dimmer in the clearing as the moon's silver radiance faded. But Sean sensed no threat in the gathering dark, only a breathless anticipation from the onlookers, one that he shared. 

"Now let me tell the tale of Psakulinscheu, the squirrel who ate the moon," Elijah said into a silence that was absolute, and his voice had changed, deepened and lengthened. "Kishelamàkânk, the Creator, and the four Great Spirits Muxumsa Lowànewànk, Muxumsa Wapànewànk, Huma Shawànewànk and Muxumsa Wunchènewànk, made the Stars, the Sun, the Moon and the Earth. Then they created life on the Earth, the plants and the animals and then the people, and Kishelamàkânk rejoiced and gave to the Earth the powers of wind, water, fire and rock, and the circle of birth, growth and death, and life was in harmony and balance."

Sean was familiar with the Lenape creation legend from books that Elijah, Elijah's father, and his father before him, had added to the family collection. To hear it spoken aloud, though, in the original language, sitting by a campfire in the depths of the pines under the night sky while the moon was slowly turning from silver to rust-red... It was pure magic.

"But one year Matantu, the spirit of destruction, sent a terrible winter of cold and snow," Elijah continued. "All the animals in the woods went hungry for lack of food. Nipahuma, Grandmother Moon, looked down from the night sky and mourned for her children with their empty, aching bellies and wished to help them."

As Elijah half-spoke, half-chanted the words, the air around him suddenly shimmered, and a figure swam into view, obscuring Elijah from Sean's sight. It was a young man, slender and dark-haired and enough like Elijah to be almost his twin, save that his eyes were dark brown. He was dressed in stained fringed buckskins and soft leather boots and a wool blanket woven in intricate patterns of earth-brown, gold and pine-green was draped around his shoulders. Resting on the sand beside him was the kind of firearm that one would only find these days in a museum, and between his reddened, chapped hands he cradled a battered tin mug from which a thin thread of steam curled. Sean's breath caught. He knew this man, for Jordan Wood had appeared to him before, the first time on a long-ago day by a cedar swamp when Sean was still ignorant of the Woodjin's true identity. 

Sean had come to understand that in the pines the line between past and present blurred, and that visions or ghosts or echoes of the past, or whatever term one chose to use to describe them, could cross over that line. The unique abilities a Woodjin possessed were passed down from father to son or uncle to nephew, and each was tied to the other with a bond so strong that even death could not completely sever it. Sean no longer found these visions, these moments of past and present commingling, unsettling, but rather deeply comforting. For in the deepest, most profound sense they meant that Elijah was not, nor ever would be, alone.

But the visions or visitations never lasted long, and as swiftly as he had appeared, Jordan Wood vanished, revealing Elijah in his battered work boots, faded jeans and that ugly gray hat that Sean loved so much; and in the sand beside him lay not a musket, but a smoothly worn cedar walking stick carved with a stag's head. 

Seeming unaware that his ancestor had put in an appearance, however brief, Elijah continued, "Nux Kishux, the Father Sun, was asleep, and Kukna, the Mother Earth, was buried under a thick blanket of white. Nipahuma could not call on her brother and sister to aid those who were in need. So she shone her full light on the forest and asked, 'Is there one among you who will climb the sacred cedar tree and eat of me and carry me back to the Earth so that all may partake and no longer go hungry?'"

A little shiver passed through Rocky and he chattered something. Elijah chided him gently, "You're getting ahead of the story, Rocky. Be patient."

Sean bit back a smile. Patience was definitely not Rocky's strong suit.

"The animals gathered at the sacred cedar tree, the tallest tree in the woods, to consider Nipahuma's request. Achpoques, the mouse, said, 'I would go to you, Grandmother Moon, but my cheek pouches are too small to hold you.' Ktemaque, the beaver, said, 'I would go to you, Grandmother Moon, but I cannot leave the water that is my home.' Machque, the bear, said, 'I would go to you, Grandmother Moon, but my weight is too great for the sacred cedar tree to hold me.' Mucliwoapingus, the opossum, said, 'I would go to you, Grandmother Moon, but your light is too bright and my eyes cannot see.' Muschgingus, the rabbit, said, 'I would go to you, Grandmother Moon, but I do not know how to climb.' Nachenum, the raccoon, said, 'I would go to you, Grandmother Moon, but I am afraid of falling from so great a height.'"

Rocky was practically vibrating now, and inevitably expressed his emotions with a few sharp tugs on Sean's hair. But Sean didn't mind. He could hardly blame him for getting a little overexcited in the heat of the moment - it was a dramatic story.

Elijah waited a few beats, as if to ramp up the tension, before continuing, "Then Psakulinscheu, the squirrel, came forth.'I will go to you, Grandmother Moon,' he said. 'My cheek pouches are large and to the sacred cedar tree I weigh no more than a feather. Your bright light does not blind me and I do not fear the climb, for in the tree-tops I make my home.' 

"And without hesitation Psakulinscheu leaped onto the tree's lowest branch and began nimbly to climb. Up and up and up he went, and when he looked down, the animals far below seemed as tiny ants to his wondering eyes. And still Psakulinscheu climbed, higher and higher, until he reached the very top, where Grandmother Moon was waiting. Quickly he began to eat her, storing each bite in his cheek pouches until they bulged. When he was done, Psakulinscheu's acorn-brown fur was all that could be seen in the sky and Grandmother Moon was gone."

Elijah's timing was impeccable, Sean realized. The moon was indeed now covered from top to bottom by the earth's shadow - or by squirrel fur, depending on one's point of view. 

squirrel 4
squirrel 4

Sean craned his neck to look at Rocky. He'd let go of Sean's hair and his tiny paws were clasped at his soft white breast and his beady black eyes were fixed on the sky... and it wasn't in the least a comical sight. To Rocky, and presumably to the other squirrels, Psakulinscheu was as much a hero as... he searched for a suitable comparison... Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin were to him and the rest of his kind. 

"Psakulinscheu climbed down the sacred cedar tree, bearing his precious burden to the hungry animals. He emptied his cheek pouches, that had never before been so full, and gave to each animal a portion of the moon, saving the last piece for himself. And to Achpoques the mouse the food tasted like the ripest cheese, and to Ktemaque the beaver it tasted like the tender green shoots of the trees in spring, and to Machque the bear it tasted like honey dripping in the comb, and to Mucliwoapingus the opossum it tasted like the plumpest earthworms, and to Muschgingus the rabbit it tasted like tender carrots and radishes, and to Nachenum the raccoon it tasted like juicy fish." Elijah paused. "And to Psakulinscheu? The moon tasted like the plumpest, ripest, sweetest acorns the winds shake from the great oak trees in autumn."

A sound rippled through the night from tree to tree - a sigh of pure satisfaction. There was, Sean thought, no other way to describe it.

"The animals ate their fill, until for the first time in many days their bellies did not ache with hunger, thanks to Psakulinscheu. Kishelamàkânk the Creator, seeing this, set his hand upon Psakulinscheu in gratitude, and even to this day, every squirrel in the forest bears the mark of his favor. And then he made anew Nipahuma, Grandmother Moon, and set her back in the sky, and in the morning, when Nux Kishux, the Father Sun, awoke and heard of his sister's goodness, he blazed up with joy so that the snow melted and the cold fled and all was again well with the land." Elijah, sounding rather hoarse by this point, cleared his throat. "So ends the tale of brave Psakulinscheu, the squirrel who ate the moon."

All around Sean erupted a noisy spate of chattering that appeared to be the squirrel equivalent of a standing ovation.

"Based on audience reaction, I'd say you hit a home run," he observed.

Elijah giggled, but his eyes were shining with delight. "My audience is very easy to please." He got up and joined Sean again, sitting down close by his side.

Rocky crossed from Sean's shoulder to Elijah's, touched noses with him, then wrapped himself around Elijah's neck and promptly fell asleep, tired out from all the excitement and his late night. Rustling sounds in the trees faded and died as Rocky's compatriots followed suit. Fred withdrew into his shell and closed up tight. Maggie's amber eyes narrowed to slits, the low bass of her contented purr barely audible. Sean leaned forward and added a few pieces of wood to the snapping fire while Elijah unscrewed the top of the thermos and filled the plastic cup with the last of the hot chocolate. 

Elijah took a sip of the hot chocolate then cradled the cup between his bare hands; a thin curl of white steam rose from it, and Sean was reminded of his earlier vision of Jordan Wood. He said quietly, "I've read every book of Lenape folktales and legends in our library, Elijah. I don't recall one about a squirrel eating the moon."

"Not all tales are written down," Elijah replied. "But as a matter of fact, the story of Psakulinscheu isn't strictly Lenape. It was taught to me by my father, and he told me that it originated with the first Woodjin."

"Who presumably had a Rocky of his own?" Sean was intrigued. It seemed there was good reason for Jordan Wood to show up.

"I don't know for sure, but I expect that he did. There was a total lunar eclipse in 1768, Sean." Elijah smiled and lightly stroked Rocky's bushy tail that was draped over his collar like a stole. "I like to think he made up the story for his own Rocky." 

"So do I." Rocky might be a bit eccentric, but what Piney wasn't? Sean adored him. "Let me add my kudos to the squirrels'. You tell a kick-ass story, Woodjin," he said, and tipping Elijah's cold chin up with his fingers, kissed him. "Mmmm... you taste like hot chocolate."

They exchanged soft, careful kisses between sips of hot chocolate, but they weren't careful enough. Rocky opened one eye and expressed his displeasure at the disruption of his sleep by their antics. So they contented themselves with the fire, the moon, the peace of the fading night and most of all the simple joy of being together in the place they loved best.

But dawn was not far off, and soon they would have to douse the campfire and head home, for the workaday world of hospital rounds and office hours beckoned Sean, and Elijah had his patients, too. No rest for the weary, but Sean wouldn't have traded this wondrous night for anything. 

He gazed up at Nipahuma, Grandmother Moon, restored now to her silver radiance. I will never look at the moon again the same way, Sean thought, and perhaps it was only his fancy, but it seemed to him that she smiled.